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In Profile: Maurits Bruel

Suzy Bibko is Editor-in-Chief of Families in Business magazine.

I feel very proud when I manage to help my clients incorporate different perspectives when making their decisions. Narrowmindedness is one of the greatest threats to family business

Maurits Bruel is a Senior Consultant at GITP International in the Netherlands. His work is concentrated in the field of succession planning in both family and non-family businesses, which includes governance structures and strategy issues in family businesses. Though his career has changed over the years, he feels he "will always be involved with family business in one way or another."

What is your background?
I studied business and econometrics at Groningen State University in the Netherlands before joining Reed Elsevier as a project manager. I switched to consulting in 1996, when I joined GITP, which is active mainly in the field of human resources. I was offered an extensive traineeship to become familiar with the whole range of human resource issues and solutions. Combined with my previous experience and education this gave me the right tools to start my general consultancy work. Family business consulting was part of my work from the beginning and as I gained more experience in this area I gradually specialised in governance and succession issues.

By 1997 I was the managing director of SFBN (the first Dutch family business foundation), which hosted the annual FBN world conference in the Hague. As a follow-up, we founded FBNed, the Dutch family business network, which has since developed quite well. It also provides an open learning environment, which I value. I think it is very important to keep in touch with family businesses from different branches and cultures.

In 1998 I co-authored a bestselling book on the relationship between individuals and organisations, that was translated into English and French. I have used the concepts developed in the book to create a new approach to family business consultancy.

As well as being active with FBN and FBNed, I'malso a member of a coaching network of family business consultants, each with a different discipline. This group helps us to keep up with developments in different fields and to keep a broad view.

You said that family business consulting was part of your work early on. But how did you initially become interested in the field?
It all started when I was asked to work for FBN during my university years. I became interested in the subject and decided to write my final thesis on the financial aspects of good shareholder relationships in family business. I made contact with most of the people who were important in the field (quite a small number back then), both in Europe and in the US, and it is because of their enthusiasm and inspiring pioneering work that I decided to move into the field.

I did consider other career options and started one in project management but soon realised that it was not what I really wanted. Corporate governance and family business were the two passions I had at the time. When the opportunity to combine the two in a consulting job came along I did not hesitate to take it. I do, however, also remain active as a consultant to non-family businesses and try to translate the knowledge I acquire in one area to the other.

What changes do you see between the different European countries and how they view and treat family businesses?
I think the differences can be divided into several categories: embracing entrepreneurship, acknowledgement of the value of the family beyond the 'mom-and-pop' store, and the facilitation of succession. There is a trend of convergence among the European countries, both in the way family businesses are treated tax-wise and how their contribution is valued. This is one of the results of the growing number of national family business associations. Unfortunately, many of the traditional employers' associations still do not give enough attention to family businesses; their main concern is business size and industry.

The Netherlands seems to have a particularly business-friendly society. Does that translate to family businesses?
The Netherlands is a friendly society for entrepreneurship in general, but not for family business per se. There is a reasonably good infrastructure for family businesses in the Netherlands: there is a family business association, several family business service centres, some researchers, family business chairs and professors at universities, and many consultants. On the other hand there is not much governmental effort to improve conditions for family businesses, especially in the field of taxation.

Have you seen a lot of changes in family business consulting over the years?
When I started in the business there were only a handful of consultants in the Netherlands, mostly independent from large consulting and accountancy firms. There was also not much interaction among consultants from different backgrounds (financial, psychological, legal and business). The most important change is the development of a more holistic approach and improved contacts among consultants from different specialties. Also, the increased activities of large consulting firms.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
My ultimate goal is to encourage alignment between business and individual development. I have seen many family business members grow as people, improving both their competencies and their personalities. I get a big kick out of seeing a young person grow and succeed, while at the same time helping the business.
I also believe a family business should try to find a strategic direction for the company that matches both the values and qualities of its members, and not be too susceptible to fads in management. Recently, we have seen that a narrow focus on such things as shareholder value tend to backfire. I try to help families make decisions based on both firm values and common sense. As the chairman of several family councils I have a unique opportunity to do so and for that I am very grateful.

The longer you work, do you find yourself being involved in one aspect of family business consulting more than another?
I tend to be more involved with both the younger generation and governance issues. Succession planning is part of the issue, but in many cases this is only relevant for a few members of the family – my work includes only those who will become shareholders.

What approach do you use in dealing with family businesses?
I try to find a balance between the individual and the family and to help families strengthen their common bond without suffocating or alienating any individuals. I also try to improve communication and respect both for those members who have the qualities and ambition to join the business, and for those who choose to pursue a different career but who are still emotionally committed to the family business.

What is the best professional advice you ever received?
I think that would have been advice given to me by my first mentor, Joost van Hamel, one of the founders of FBN. He saw that I was sometimes being too rational when it came to dealing with family business issues and taught me how to use emotions and values in my consulting work. This has helped me a lot when dealing with both succession and governance issues.

What is your greatest source of professional pride?
I feel very proud when I manage to help my clients incorporate different perspectives when making their decisions; perspectives they are aware of in the back of their minds but simply overlook or are not sure how to incorporate into their decision. Narrow-mindedness is one of the greatest threats to family businesses.

What challenges you most?
The biggest challenge is helping to close the gap that can exist between generations. I must admit that I am personally experiencing exactly the same things my clients do: some kind of generational gap. We all grow older and it takes a lot of energy to remain flexible and open. Fortunately, I have people who confront me with my weaknesses and can also coach me. We all need that sometimes –  consultants as well as family business owners.

What personality traits have served you best over the years?
The first is perseverance. I hate throwing in the towel. I tend to take up challenges and see them through, without sometimes knowing beforehand how to solve a problem.

The second is creativity, lateral thinking. When I was in my teens I started to realise that the ideas that just popped into my mind were not the same as everyone else's, even though they felt natural to me. Putting that creativity to good use was the challenge of my youth, and even now it helps me a lot.

Do you ever see yourself changing careers?
Why not? I have changed careers over the years. But I will always be involved with family business in one way or another. This has been a thread throughout my career and I don't expect that to change.

What is on the horizon for family businesses and consultants?
The future looks very bright. I think we will see many opportunities for family companies this century. Large public cor­por­ations have proven vulnerable to short-term vision and indivi­d­ual greed. The public is looking for companies they can trust and family businesses will have a great advantage in the next decades.

Consultants, however, will have to change their propositions, as more and more family business members will have excellent educations. Consultants will have to be able to add real value by combining in-depth knowledge of one area with a multidisciplinary approach. And although many consultants acknowledge this already, too often they revert back to their comfort zone when things really become challenging.

What advice do you have for people entering the field of family business consulting?
You should be willing to show the same amount of dedication to family business as your clients. If you just want to tell family businesses how to become 'normal' businesses, don't enter the field. Don't idealise family business either; there's nothing helpful in a consultant who has lost his independent criticism.

You should take the time to discover your own motives and values, and whether you are just visiting the field or whether you have a calling. If you are really a specialist pur sang, there is no shame in that; stick to it and be happy. But don't think your specialist perspective is all that matters – try to work together with people from different backgrounds to improve your advice.

Finally, just do it! It's a great job!

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